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Alerting vests for soldiers

If you were a soldier, I'm sure you would like to be warned in real time of an imminent danger. According to New Scientist, MIT researchers have developed a vibrating vest which could send alerts to soldiers. But here comes the tricky part: the alerts will wirelessly be sent to 16 motors located on the wearer's back. And the soldier will have to remember which combination of vibrations on his back means "Danger!," "Stop" or "Run," as he was not stressed enough. It is certainly technologically feasible, but is this practical? I don't think so.
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Written by Roland Piquepaille, Inactive on

If you were a soldier, I'm sure you would like to be warned in real time of an imminent danger. According to New Scientist, MIT researchers have developed a vibrating vest which could send alerts to soldiers. But here comes the tricky part: the alerts will wirelessly be sent to 16 motors located on the wearer's back. And the soldier will have to remember which combination of vibrations on his back means "Danger!," "Stop" or "Run," as he was not stressed enough. It is certainly technologically feasible, but is this practical? I don't think so.

Here is how New Scientist describes the vest.

A vibrating vest that writes messages on its wearer's back is being tested by researchers in the US. In future, it could be used to send important commands to soldiers or fire-fighters, warning them of imminent danger when ordinary radios cannot be used, for example.
The vest is made from black spandex and fastens around a person's lower torso with Velcro. An array of 16 small vibrating motors is embedded in the back of the vest and connects to a control unit on one side. This unit contains a wireless transceiver linked wirelessly to a controlling computer.

There are not many images of this vest online. Neither New Scientist nor the U.S. Army are showing it prominently. But here is a picture of the 16 vibrating motors which will be embedded in the MIT tactile vest (Credit:MIT). And here is a link to a larger version.

What's under the MIT tactile vest

This program, which is partially funded by the U.S. army, is being led by Lynette Jones, Principal Research Scientist at the BioInstrumentation Laboratory of MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering. Here is how she explains how the vest works, adding that she created 15 symbols with very high recognition inside her lab.

Eight of the symbols are derived from hand signals already used by the US military. "They communicate things like stop, look left, run, proceed faster or proceed slower," explains Jones. When four corners of the array vibrate, for example, this means stop. And a vibrating column, moving from one side to the other, means turn left or right.

I still have some doubts. The researchers say they've used five volunteers and that only one made a mistake during the tests. But who were these volunteers? MIT students on a campus or U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq?

Anyway, the latest research work about this project has been published by Advanced Robotics under the title "Tactile display and vibrotactile pattern recognition on the torso" (Volume 20, Number 12, Pages 1359-1374, December 2006). Here is a link to the abstract and its first paragraph.

A wirelessly controlled tactile display has been designed, fabricated and tested for use as a navigation aid. The display comprises a 4 × 4 array of vibrating motors that is mounted on a waist band and stimulates the skin across the lower back. Three types of electromechanical actuators were evaluated for use in the display; based on their mechanical performance and power requirements, two of these motors were then used to fabricate tactile displays.
The performance of the displays and the wireless tactile control units was assessed experimentally by having subjects identify which of eight possible vibrotactile patterns was presented to the lower back. The results indicated that subjects could recognize the vibrotactile patterns with almost perfect accuracy and that there was no difference between the two types of motor used for the displays.

Do you think that such a vibrating vest could be useful to soldiers or not? Drop me a note.

Sources: Tom Simonite, New Scientist, January 3, 2007; and various websites

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